Ron Smith, who came to Baltimore 38 years ago as a weekend TV anchorman but found his greatest success on radio as WBAL's "Voice of Reason," died Monday night of pancreatic cancer at his home in Shrewsbury, Pa.. He was 70.
Mr. Smith spent more than 26 years on WBAL's airwaves, most of it in the afternoon drive-time period until a move to mornings last year, passionately talking politics from a conservative point of view. But it is not his politics for which he will likely be remembered as much as the informed conversation he helped create on Baltimore radio — and the way he publicly shared his final days with listeners of WBAL and readers of The Baltimore Sun.
On Nov. 28, after continuing on-air for more than two months despite having been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer that had metastasized throughout his body, Mr. Smith signed off at the 50,000-watt news-talk station for the last time in his signature straightforward, no-nonsense, radio style.
"I'm retiring," the former Marine said in a live broadcast. "I basically can no longer do it. I'm getting weaker every day, and it's time to pull the plug. I'm just not up to it. So, you have to face that kind of thing. Basically, the curtain is coming down right now. I'm bidding everyone a very fond farewell."
Clarence Mitchell IV, a colleague at WBAL, says that while he always admired Mr. Smith as a talk-show host, he was in awe of the public and powerful way that Mr. Smith handled his final days.
"The dignity and the manner with which Ron Smith has dealt with his illness, sharing it with his audience and the world, has really gained the respect of everyone who has followed his travail," Mr. Mitchell said. "Since the understanding of his illness in the last few weeks and months of his life, he has gone out more gloriously as a man than he even was a talk-show host."
Mr. Smith was a very good radio host, according to Towson University Professor Richard Vatz.
"Ron Smith, simply put, was the best radio talk-show host I have ever known," said Mr. Vatz. "I can sum up even as brilliant and well-informed a talk-show host as Ron in a sentence: He hated insipid conversation. What are the qualities at which he excelled? Knowledgeability and lack of deception. He never faked knowing something he didn't know."
While many assessments of Mr. Smith in recent weeks spoke of his breadth of knowledge and intelligence — with frequent references to his using the airwaves to "teach" and "educate" his audience — Mr. Smith's relationship to education was, by his own admission, a complicated one that shaped his life in significant ways.
Born 1941 in upstate New York, Mr. Smith, the son of an assistant school superintendent, dropped out of high school at age 17 and joined the Marines. He was in the Marines from 1959 to 1962, his last duty serving at a Navy submarine base in New London, Conn.
When asked in a Sun interview last month if his military experience was crucial to understanding his life, Mr. Smith said, "Not so much becoming a Marine, but why I became a Marine, the necessity to escape school."
"School was like a prison," he said. "I had to get out. I always read easily since the time I was a little kid. I used to read the Encyclopedia Britannica Junior since the time I was 7 or 8 years old, so I educated myself. And, of course, educating yourself is a trap because you go down the wrong road quite a bit. But, on the other hand, it allows you to investigate what you really think is interesting and useful. And those characteristics came in handy in terms of my later career."
After the Marines, Mr. Smith started working in community theater in Albany, N.Y., near his hometown of Troy, while he "tried to figure out" what he wanted to do.
"I was always attracted to acting, and the most talented kid that I knew who was a director, actor and singer had made $2,600 in 1962," Mr. Smith said. "And that made me think, 'Hmm, I'd like to take my talents and make a living,' which basically led me to broadcasting. I always had the ability to sight read very easily, and I had a good voice — so those things were assets."
Mr. Smith's first broadcasting job was as a disc jockey in Haverhill, Mass. He didn't like the station, but he liked being on the air. He returned to Albany and eventually landed a radio and TV reporting job at WTEN. He was at that station five years when the call came in 1973 to join Baltimore's WBAL-TV as a weekend anchor and reporter.
Three years later, he was co-anchor on Channel 11's first-string news team, but he was up against the legendary Jerry Turner on WJZ. By 1980, he was unceremoniously dumped in an anchor desk shuffle.
"Let me tell you about competing against WJZ-TV anchorman Jerry Turner," Mr. Smith wrote in a piece for The Baltimore Sun shortly after Mr. Turner's death. "I would have had more of a chance in the squared circle against Ali or Tyson."
Mr. Smith went to work full time as a stockbroker, but he never lost the desire to be on air. And while he claimed to enjoy working in the financial world, it was all prelude for the passion he found as a talk-show host starting part-time in 1984 and full time a year later on WBAL radio.
In describing what being a radio talk-show host meant to him, Mr. Smith said, "It's what I do. It's who I am. It's my creative expression." He was only half kidding when he took to referring to himself as "Talk Show Man" after a Sun columnist called him that in the paper.
The "Voice of Reason" title, meanwhile, came from a listener, according to Mr. Smith's wife, June.
"A caller responding to one of Ron's rants on the constant struggle between various theories and the hard, cold, facts of reality, said, 'You are The Voice of Reason.' Thus, it became so," she explained.
"You know, Emerson said long ago, if you find something that you love to do, something that comes easy to you that other people find impossible, you've found your niche," Mr. Smith said. "That's a paraphrase, but it's an exact meaning. Well, I found that."
"It's his highest calling," June Smith said. "It's where his heart is. He loves his family and his friends, but he truly loves his microphone and his audience."
An estimated 120,000 listeners a week tuned in to Mr. Smith — an audience that put WBAL among the top five stations in the market during his weekday show right up to his sign-off.
"Radio was a great transition for Ron," said WBAL-TV anchor Stan Stovall, who was Mr. Smith's on-air TV partner in 1980 and has been a self-described close friend since. "Ron got to be himself on the radio. He got to put his opinions out there and show what an intellect he really was."
Mr. Smith said WBAL management understood something about the boy who hated school and what he saw as arbitrary rules imposed from above. His bosses were wise enough to let him do the show his way.
"I can't imagine what would have happened if I'd have been in places where they tried to manage me day to day, topic to topic," he said. "It would have strangled me. It would have suffocated me. So, I knew enough to be content with what I had here, because they let me do my show without interference."
Mr. Smith did have ups and downs in recent years. When he denounced the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, large parts of his audience howled in protest — and then some tuned him out altogether.
"I lost somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of my audience just like that," he said, snapping his fingers in the air.
"They were angry with me, because my audience is basically conservative," he explained. "I mean, here I am for years and years expressing the viewpoints of the people who are conservative, so they're grateful. And then, their president says it's necessary to go to war with Iraq, and I say, 'No, no, it's not, it's the dumbest thing I ever heard of.' And they're very angry with me, because it's the president I'm disagreeing with — and who am I? But presidents don't necessarily know more than we do."
That anti-authoritarian strain surfaced often as Mr. Smith reflected on his life and work in last his interview with the Sun.
When asked if religion had become more important to him since his cancer diagnosis in October, he said, "I'm not a religious person.
"I'm a spiritual person, but not religious. I couldn't accept dogma for the same reason I couldn't go to school, OK?" he added, sounding more like the animated on-air "Talk Show Man" than he had at any other time during the conversation.
"Dogma means you have to accept all sorts of different things as being equally true, and they're not. I'm anti-dogmatic by my nature — anti-dogmatic, anti-authoritarian. So, the only thing I was suited for was what I did at WBAL for all these years."
Anti-authoritarian or not, Mr. Smith was as good an employee as any news-talk radio station could ever hope to have, according Ed Kiernan, longtime general manager of WBAL.
"A voracious reader, Ron Smith arrived at his opinions after careful thought and research. He arrived early to work always prepared and excited to get behind the microphone," Mr. Kiernan said.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Smith family and his incredibly supportive wife, June. She loaned us Ron every day. Ron invested 26 years of his enormously successful career with WBAL radio. It wasn't long enough. Thank you, Ron. Godspeed. Semper Fi."
The way the Baltimore community reached out to Mr. Smith since he announced his diagnosis of cancer on-air made him feel "very lucky," his wife said.
"Ron thought it was just great that he got to read and hear his eulogies in recent weeks," she said Monday night. "Ron's comment on all the recognition: 'My life has been completely ratified by affirmation. If there were a referendum on it, it would have won resoundingly.'"
In addition to his wife of 23 years, Mr. Smith is survived by three sons, a daughter and five grandchildren. The sons are Christopher Smith, Ward Smith and Andrew Smith of Lancaster, Pa., Eldersburg and Baltimore, respectively. Daughter Amy Zappardino Lichtenwalner lives in Glen Rock, Pa. Two previous marriages ended in divorce.
No public service will be held, according to June Smith.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.